TAPS uses art therapy to help military families heal

Art therapy used to help military families heal (ABC7)

How do you cope with the loss of a military loved one?

How do you heal, or even move on?

“I didn’t know where to turn,” said Erin Jacobson. “I didn’t know how to process the loss.”

Jacobson, originally from Seattle, was forced to confront those questions after her fiance, 29-year-old Army Ranger Corporal Jason Kessler was killed in Mosul, Iraq in 2007.

But she was far from alone.

“I started feeling just overwhelmed, not knowing what I was going to do,” said Andrea Hann.

Hann, too, went through a dark period after her son, Army Private Christopher Castaneda, died by suicide in November 2015, while serving at the Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. He was just 19 years old.

“I need to go somewhere quiet, peaceful, and relaxing,” she remembers thinking.

Both women approached the group TAPS, short for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

The Arlington-based organization has provided support and counseling to families of the fallen since 1994.

“We give the surviving loved ones who’ve attended, every avenue to heal,” said Bonnie Carroll, the group’s founder and president. “It could be sitting in a sharing group, doing an activity, journaling, therapy, all sorts of things.”

Healing through art therapy is one way to help those grieving the loss of a military loved one.

“It’s an opportunity to express yourself in a way that is a little distance from having to talk about your own personal situation,” said Carroll. “Expressing it through art.”

In a Crystal City hotel conference room Sunday, dozens of women were using scissors, paper, paint, and other drawing tools to chronicle their grief journeys.

Jacobson showed us a collage that she created the year after Kessler lost his life.

In one section, the word “forever”, is ripped apart.

“I look back on it now, and you can see so much isolation, and the pages are torn,” she said. “I look at the spaces where I felt there was just this brokenness.”

And yet slowly, this very personal kind of art has a healing power.

For Hann, the drawing studio is a place of peaceful calm, where she can create pieces that remind her of a loved one.

“To me, it was kind of a more personal and private way to deal with it,” she said. “At that point I was kind of more shy and didn’t really want to interact with other people.”

TAPS is now actively engaged with about 75,000 families.

Last year, Carroll says the group had 5,715 new families come to them, an average of 16 per day.

TAPS also runs what coordinators call “Good Grief” camps for children of military members who’ve passed away.

“They are constantly drawing and creating, and building and making things,” said Carroll. “Really can let them express who their loved one was.”

Survivors who work with TAPS say they see progress — and hope.

“This is just helpful on a different level that I can’t even begin to explain,” said Hann. “It’s angels that I’m making, that represent my grief and loss, but that I’m hoping can be used to help other people.”

That new outlook is revealing itself in more recent artworks the two women are creating.

Jacobson’s more recent projects are covered in bright, happy hues and shapes.

“There’s so much fullness, and light, and color,” she says. “It’s soft, and encased in a heart.”

Both Jacobson and Hann says they are so grateful.

For the hope and healing.

And the ability to process what grief means, and finding a way “to move on, and go high.”

“It always comes back to that there’s hope,” said Jacobson. “That inside all of us, the reason why we mourn, the reason why we grieve, is because we loved, and that love continues.”

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